Nightmare on Royal Brougham: The Chone Figgins Story

*Seattle – 2027*

A young Mariners fan carefully flips through a binder of his father’s old baseball cards as a thunderstorm rages outside their home in the shadows of Safeco Field. The boy smiles as he finds cards of Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez, players his dad cheered for in the halcyon days of baseball in the city and still speaks of fondly.

Those days are just a fairy tale to the boy who has never witnessed a winning season from the M’s in his lifetime. He sighs and continues to browse the cards for a sign that things might get better — for him and his beloved team — but finds none.

He starts to put the binder back in his father’s desk when curiosity gets the best of him. In the bottom of the desk is a binder covered in strange characters that reeks of pine tar and chewing tobacco. His father made the boy promise never to open the book, but what could one little look hurt? He glances to the next room to see if his father is watching before opening the binder…

The thunder rolls ominously in the distance as he stares at the lone card in the page. A chill runs up his spine as he reads the name of the strange creature with the beady eyes on the card. C-H-O-N-E…

“Dad, what’s a Chone Figgins,” the frightened boy asks.

A flash of lightning illuminates the man’s face in the adjoining room. His jaw is clenched and his hands are balled in fists at his side. He knew the time had come, that the boy was ready to know the truth, no matter how painful it was for him to recall. He takes a long swig from the bottle of whiskey he has been nursing all day and collects his thoughts.

“A Chone Figgins is a tiny, evil little goblin that haunts cursed baseball teams like the Mariners. It constantly complains and blames other people for its failures. It sticks around for years and costs millions of dollars to get rid of. It is evil incarnate.”

The boys furrows his brow. “Why would God make something like that?”

He wished the boy’s mother, Diane, was still there to help with big questions like this. He had never been able to deal with emotional issues. Maybe that’s why she left him and married Keith. Man he hated Keith.

“I don’t know son. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I just don’t know.”

The man takes another sip of whiskey and disappears into his thoughts. Why hadn’t he just thrown that dirty old binder away?

“We don’t have to worry about the Chone Figgins anymore…do we dad?”

The son’s words unleash a flood of deeply repressed memories to the father. His mind races back to that dreadful day so many years ago. He sees himself driving the wooden stake deep into the heart of the creature and remembers the terrible noise it made as it died and crumbled to ash. The father remembered the eyes. THOSE EYES. He didn’t know if it was fear or relief he saw in the waning seconds of the creature’s life, but he knew he would never be able to forget it. He also knew that he could never be forgiven for what he had done, but his son would never have to live in fear of Chone Figgins, and neither would the rest of his tortured city.

His thoughts return to the present and he realizes that his knuckles have turned white from squeezing the empty bottle of alcohol in his hands. He throws the bottle away and grabs two cans of Pepsi out of the fridge, handing one to his son.

“No. We don’t have to worry anymore.”

The boy breathes a sigh of relief and puts the binder away. “Can we turn on the game dad? It’s the season opener.”

“Sure thing kiddo.”

The two bask in the glow of the T.V. as Seattle’s leadoff hitter, a spindly rookie making his first big league start, lines a single into left field. Rain continues to fall on their roof, but suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so dark outside.

“Maybe this will be the Mariners year, huh dad?”

“Yeah,” the father smiles, “maybe it will be.”

Never again.

Never again.

 

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The Kids Aren’t Alright: What’s Wrong With Michael Saunders?

Michael Saunders has been more inconsistent than my bowel movements after eating a Double Down.

When Ken Griffey Jr “retired” earlier this season, young left fielder Michael Saunders became my favorite player on the woebegone squad. What can I say—I’ve got a thing for lefties who spend their summer days flirting with the Mendoza Line.    

Though he wasn’t a top draft pick (11th round of the 2004 draft) Saunders combination of power and speed allowed him to move steadily through the Mariners’ farm system, reaching the majors last season to fill the void left by Raul Ibanez. Saunders struggled mightily in his first chance in the show (.221-0 HR’s-4 RBI’s-6 walks/40 strikeouts) as his long swing was exposed by big league pitchers. Still, at only 22, there was still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Saunders heading into 2010.    

Saunders’ role with the team was temporarily in question when the Mariners acquired Milton Bradley in the offseason to play left field and DH, but it didn’t take long for him to get the call from Tacoma when Bradley was neutralized with a variety of injuries and mental instability. Despite continued contact issues, Saunders flashed the power that made him such a highly regarded prospect, hitting seven home runs in 106 May and June at-bats for a power starved Mariners’ team. He even went deep twice against southpaws, highlighted by a go-ahead home run against Red Sox ace Jon Lester. While his slugging dipped in July, Saunders showed improved plate discipline, drawing 11 walks against 16 strikeouts and posting a .380 OBP for the month. It seemed that the light had come on for Saunders and he was on the verge of a breakout season. But then, just as suddenly as he found his groove, Saunders hit a wall. Literally.   

The Condor will have to continue to develop at the plate if he wants to help the Mariners back to the playoffs.

In an August game against the Texas Rangers, Saunders collided with the left field wall trying to keep a home run in the park, and injured the same shoulder that he had labrum surgery on earlier in his career. Though the injury wasn’t serious, Saunders was shelved for around two weeks before returning to the lineup on August 31st. Since that time, the Condor just hasn’t been able to take flight, hitting a paltry .161 in September with just one extra base hit in the month (he hasn’t hit a home run since July). Reports from the clubhouse seem to indicate that Saunders’ shoulder is feeling fine, so what does he have to do in order to stay an important piece in the Mariners’ rebuilding effort?   

Part of Saunders’ regression is due to bad luck, as he carries a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .267 on the season (last season his BABIP was .329, the league average is around .300). Saunders has the wheels to leg out base hits, but he hits too many pop ups (16% of his flyballs don’t leave the infield) and flyballs (0.57 groundballs for every 1 flyball) to utilize his speed. While part of the low BABIP is out of  Saunders’ control, he would benefit from a shorter, compact swing which would allow him to make more consistent, solid contact (his 16 percent career linedrive rate is well below the MLB average of 19%). A shorter swing would also allow Saunders more time to react to pitches, neutralizing his two biggest weaknesses (fastballs inside and breaking balls away) and giving him a better chance to hang in against lefties. 

Saunders certainly has the talent to become an above average left fielder (think .270-20 HR’s-70 RBI’s-20 SB’s) and I hope that the Mariners give him a chance to play full-time in 2011, because let’s face it, they probably won’t be contending for the AL West title anyway. Saunders needs to make some adjustments in order to raise his average and provide value to the Mariners at the plate (he’s already a solid defensive player), and the best way to do that is to get at-bats at the major league level (especially against left handers, so they won’t have to platoon him in the future). If the Mariners want to climb out of the cellar next season, it will be on the strength of young players like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda and Saunders–the days of overpriced free-agents in Seattle are over. 

Mark my words, the Condor (and the M’s) will soar. Just not in 2010…

Wak Blocked: Mariners Fire Second-Year Manager Don Wakamatsu; Admit That Season Isn’t Exactly Going As Planned.

Though Wakamatsu took the fall, no one in the organization is without blame.

Though the writing had been on the wall for months, yesterday’s firing of manager Don Wakamatsu still came as a surprise from an organization that had come to reward mediocrity over the last decade.  

With the team in a free fall and showing no signs of improvement, GM Jack Zduriencik decided that Wakamatsu was no longer the right man for the job, and showed his hand-picked manager the door.  

The Mariners entered Monday night with a record of 42-70, the third worst in baseball, after a busy offseason that brought hope of a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. With virtually every player on the team underperforming Wakamatsu never really had a chance to succeed (it is a Seattle sports team after all). Wakamastu wasn’t without blame though;  his questionable handling of the bullpen and inability to get maximum effort out of the team made the lame duck manager a perfect scapegoat for the M’s numerous shortcomings.  

Triple-A manager Darren “Aw Shucks” Brown will replace Wakamatsu for the remainder of the season, though with the current squad, he’s probably not expected to do anything more than shake out the roster and try to figure out which pieces hold value moving into 2011 (so long Jose Lopez, Milton Bradley, Rob Johnson, etc). It would behoove Brown to manage with a bit more evident passion than Wakamatsu, whose Zen-like persona made him appear like an apathetic captain at the helm of a sinking ship.  

It’s unfortunate that a classy manager like Wakamatsu had to be fired after just two seasons because of poor front office decisions, but it was apparent from his run-ins with Ken Griffey Jr., Milton Bradley, Michael Lohan and Chone Figgins that he no longer had the respect of his players. 

He’s not the only one whose lost respect this season–Seattle’s front office and ownership are also on thin ice with M’s fans after putting one of the sorriest teams on the field in the organization’s storied history. 

If more changes aren’t made soon, Wakamatsu won’t be the only one looking for work this offseason…

My Heart Will Go On: Ken Griffey Jr. Retires from Baseball.

I wish I had something profound to say about Ken Griffey Jr.’s career, I really do…but I’m not ready to say goodbye.

To me Griffey will always be “the Kid”–but time doesn’t play favorites. As the season progressed, it became increasingly clear that Junior was no longer capable of performing in the Major Leagues, and the ever classy slugger humbly bowed out.

There’s no fountain of youth for Griffey; he can’t find his back to Neverland and rediscover the talent that made him one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. The Kid is all grown up and the fans that clung to his every picture perfect swing are in the process of going through Griffey’s midlife crisis for him.

It might seem silly to some that fans would get so upset about a player retiring, but Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t just a baseball player, he was our baseball player. Griffey put Seattle baseball on the map and is the reason that Safeco Field was built and baseball still exists in the Emerald City. He brought hope to a long-suffering franchise and provided Seattle fans with a lifetime full of highlights each time he took the field. There was nothing on the baseball diamond that Ken Griffey Jr. couldn’t do, and we were lucky to have him for as long as we did.

In a perfect world Griffey would have left after last season, with the aging superstar being carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates as the lasting image of stellar career. Of course, in a perfect world, one of the game’s greats wouldn’t have to walk away without a World Series ring and years of his prime playing days wouldn’t have been lost to countless injuries and ailments.

But it’s not a perfect world, not even for a perfect player, and there won’t be a storybook ending to Griffey’s career.

Thanks for everything you did for Seattle and for baseball Ken. We’ll never forget you…

Mariners Monthly Roundup: May “It’s Like Watching a Loved One Slowly Pass Away” Edition

Someone made Mike Sweeney mad and pitchers all over baseball are paying the price in a big way.

Record: 8-19  (Overall 19-31) 

AL West Standings: Oakland, Texas, Los Angeles………….Seattle 

Top Hitter: Ichiro has done his part all year to get the Mariners’ offense started but the team has been unable to cash in on the opportunities when he reaches base. Suzuki was as consistent as ever in May, hitting .336 with one HR, 7 RBI’s and 7 SB’s (but only 10 runs scored). At 36-years-old, Ichiro has shown no signs of slowing down, and gives M’s fans something to look forward to (a 10th straight 200-hit season) in an otherwise dismal year. 

Top Pitcher:  Hopefully Mariners’ fans enjoyed watching Cliff Lee pitch in May because it’s doubtful that the crafty lefty will be in Seattle much longer. In his first full month with the team Lee went 3-2 with a 3.82 ERA and 34 strikeouts against only 3 walks. Not only did the Mariners slow start eliminate them from playoff contention, but it also probably eliminated whatever small chance they had of resigning Lee after the season. Thanks Seattle. Thanks a lot.

Biggest Surprise: Mike “the Bat” Sweeney awoke from an early season slumber with a vengeance in May (.310-6 HR’s-14 RBI’s) providing fans with a bevy of souvenirs in the outfield stands and injecting some much-needed life into the Mariners’ lineup. Unfortunately, the Mariners’ best hitter is on the wrong side of 40, and had to miss numerous games due to a bad back (apparently it was “barking” at him. Is that an actual medical condition? Because I’ve never heard about it on Grey’s Anatomy. Is there a doctor in the building?) Can we catch a break? Just one, that’s all I ask for. Let Sweeney use steroids and not get caught, he’s just using them to help keep him on the field…I promise. 

Biggest Disappointment: Chone Figgins was supposed to be the spark plug that helped Seattle’s offense get to the next level and give the Mariners’ tremendous pitching staff some run support. Two months through the season Figgins is hitting just .211 and is on pace for over 150 strikeouts, which would be okay if he was going to hit 45 home runs but he is currently sitting on zero, so 45 seems a bit bullish…just a little.

Chone Figgins' poor play has been a major factor in the Mariners terrible start.

Griffey Watch: May 2010 is a month that Ken Griffey Jr. can’t forget soon enough. He made national headlines with “napgate”, was rumored to be on the verge of being released by Seattle and looked like a dinosaur at the plate (.122-0 HR’s-3 RBI’s). No matter how much he brings to the clubhouse, the Griffey experiment part 2 has been an unmitigated disaster. Let’s hope he hits one last home run and rides peacefully off into the sunset. 

Home Run Tracker: After hitting just nine home runs in the season’s first month the M’s exploded for 20 in May, which sadly, stills leave them last in all of baseball.

Happy Trails: Struggling relievers Kanekoa Teixeira and Jesus Colome were both designated for assignment after an implosion against the Angels that cost the Mariners a chance at a rare victory. I don’t think they’ll be sorely missed…or at all. 

Injuries: Erik Bedard (shoulder surgery, 60-day DL–return looking increasingly unlikely–shocker); Mark Lowe (lower back inflammation, 15-day DL); Josh Bard (strained calf, 15-day DL); Adam Moore (heel, 15-day DL); Jack Wilson (hamstring strain, 15-day DL–early June return). 

Lingering Questions: How many games does Seattle have to fall behind in the division before the team starts shopping Cliff Lee? Why didn’t someone get Griffey a coffee or 5-hour energy? Will King Felix regain the form that made him dominant in 2009? Did Carlos Silva really strike out 11 batters in a game? Will Chone Figgins really hit .200 all season? Is Don Wakamatsu on the hot seat? 

June Schedule: 3 vs. Minnesota, 3 vs. L.A., 4 @ Texas, 3 @ San Diego, 3 @ St. Louis, 3 vs. Cincinnati, 3 vs. Chicago (NL), 3 @Milwaukee, 2 @ New York 

Overall Grade: (F-)  The Mariners were simply awful in May. They can’t hit, they can’t field and they can’t run the bases. On the rare occasion when they do those things, and have a lead, the bullpen implodes and Seattle loses in the most painful ways possible. The Mariners are the most disappointing team in all of baseball and 2011 can’t get here soon enough. I’ve got to find something else to do this summer. Suggestions?

Seattle Mariners Prove Bad Luck is Contagious: Angels’ Slugger Kendry Morales Breaks Ankle Celebrating Walk-Off Home Run.

Kendry Morales is seen here in his happier days, before...the accident.

Even when you beat the Mariners you don’t win.     

The Angels found that out yesterday when their season took a sickening turn while celebrating a dramatic triumph over their downtrodden division rival.     

Kendry Morales, the Angels leader in home runs, RBI’s and batting average, came to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th and promptly did what every hitter does when facing Brandon League–crushing a game-ending grand slam deep over the left-centerfield wall and sending the Angels and their fans into a frenzy.     

As is customary in baseball since the Emancipation of Mimi, Morales’ teammates surrounded home plate as he took a victory lap around the bases. Morales approached the plate slowly, threw his helmet into the air and leapt into the middle of the fray–set to enjoy one of the greatest moments of his young career. The euphoria didn’t last long.     

Morales landed awkwardly on the plate and his leg twisted in a gruesome fashion that would make even Barbaro shudder (R.I.P. my sweet stallion). He laid in the ground in obvious pain for around ten minutes until he was carted off the field while his teammates looked on in stunned silence.   

Rob Johnson. Simple, poor hitting catcher or criminal mastermind? You be the judge baseball fans.

The news came later on Saturday that Morales had suffered a broken leg and would need surgery that would cause him to miss most if not all of the season.  The Angels, already struggling to score runs, will be without their best hitter into the forseeable future and likely lost any chance they had to catch Texas in the lowly AL West. Who’s to blame?   

Many fans and baseball pundits would like to put the responsibility for the injury on Morales and his teammates for an excessive celebration, but one can’t help but wonder if the Mariners and their bad karma played a role in one of sports’ most bizarre injuries since Bill Gramatica and Gus Freotte made football players look like the intellectual counterparts of Derek Zoolander.  

Did Rob Johnson grease up the plate with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (a proud sponsor of Viva La Vidro) while Morales was rounding the bases? Was Morales perhaps blinded by the glare of Milton Bradley’s bling or Ken Griffey Jr.’s smile, causing him to lose his bearings and land haphazardly?  

We might not ever know the answers to those questions, but one thing is for sure, the Mariners and their ineptitude are a danger to the rest of baseball. The team needs to be quarantined, sent to Double or Triple-A, and fast. Their next victim might not be so lucky to walk away with just a broken leg.

Your move Bud Selig.

They Are Who We Thought They Were: Why the Mariners’ Continued Struggles Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone.

Watching the Seattle Mariners is like getting drilled by a fastball. It hurts.

Watching the Seattle Mariners is like getting drilled by a fastball. It hurts.

After yesterday’s excruciating loss to the lowly Orioles it’s time to face the facts–the Seattle Mariners season is over.    

Yes it’s only May, and no they aren’t mathematically eliminated, but have the Mariners given us any reason to believe that they are capable of going on a tear and catching Texas in the AL West? Have they given us any reason to believe they won’t finish in the cellar of the division?   

The first month and a half of  the season has been filled with bullpen meltdowns, fielding miscues and a lineup that would have trouble scoring runs at Double A. Not only are the Mariners losing at an alarming rate, but they aren’t even fun to watch (unless you are a big fan of failed suicide squeeze bunts–happy trails Eric Byrnes). For a team that came into 2010 with such great expectations, Seattle might be the most frustrating and disappointing team in baseball.   

The offseason was filled with talk of a World Series run and a storybook ending to the career of Ken Griffey Jr. New additions like Chone Figgins, Casey Kotchman and Cliff Lee were supposed to help Seattle return to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade. All that speculation looks like a pipe dream now, as the Mariners sit at 12-21, already 6 1/2 games out in a weak division.    

The team is so boring to watch that Mariners players are falling asleep during games (allegedly) and besides recent call-up Michael Saunders there is little reason to believe things will change. The magic that was supposed to surround this team is nowhere to be found and not all the Mike Sweeney hugs in the world can do anything to change that.    

The Mariners looked like a contender on paper but have turned out to be the biggest frauds in baseball. Should we have seen this coming?    

Unfortunately yes. Despite all the optimism surrounding the team heading into 2010, the Mariners were a fatally flawed team. Here’s why:   

1) Mike Brumley’s IQ<60: Seriously, if there is one single person responsible for the M’s poor start, it’s the third base coach. If he isn’t on the payroll of the Athletics, Rangers and Angels, he should be. Brumley has looked clueless all season, sending runners who get thrown out my 15 feet, waving his arms around like a mad man and generally killing any chance the team has of scoring runs. Seattle is a team built with zero margin for error and yet they’ve run themselves out of more innings than I can count. Please fire him Mariners. Please?  

It would take approximately 100,000 Mike Brumley cards to buy a loaf of bread in Slovenia.

2) The Law of Averages: In 2009 the Mariners compiled an 85-77 record despite a negative run differential. The last time that Seattle had a winning record with a negative run differential was 2007; the following season they lost 101 games. The Mariners thrived in one run games last year, but they can’t catch a break in 2010, and are finally experiencing the regression they should have in 2009. Baseball is a game of averages and right now those averages are bitch slapping the Mariners. The team almost certainly won’t lose over 100 games again (I think…I hope…I just don’t know) but they also aren’t going to post a winning record. Happy trails Cliff Lee!   

3) Milton Bradley=Crazy: I won’t second guess the Mariners for trading away Carlos Silva (even as he thrives with the Cubs) but expecting Milton Bradley to play left field and hit cleanup all season long was doomed to fail from the start. There’s no doubt that Bradley is a talented hitter, but there is also little doubt that he has more bats in the belfry than Lady Gaga. I’m pulling for him to turn it around and have a strong year at the dish, but I certainly wouldn’t bet a gem mint 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card on it. The Mariners’ had less of a contingency plan going into 2010 than John Hammond did for Jurassic Park and they are paying dearly for it now.    

4) Catchers Who Can’t Catch (or Hit): How bad is the combination of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore behind the plate? Bad enough that I’m dreaming of the glory days of Kenji Johjima, Ben Davis and Tom Lampkin. Neither Johnson nor Moore has shown the ability to consistently hit major league pitching so they combine for a black hole in the lineup, which might be okay if they were stellar defensively—they’re not. The Mariners lead the majors in passed balls which have led to numerous unearned runs we can ill afford to spare. 

5) Clubhouse Chemistry Does Not Win Divisions: The impetus for the Mariners bringing in both Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney for 2010 was that good vibes and practical jokes would help Seattle return to the playoffs. Nevermind that both Griffey and Sweeney are one-dimensional at best and occupy two roster spots that are virtually worthless to the team right now because they’re great guys! And while manager Don Wakamatsu may be loved by the players, his handling of the bullpen this year makes Dusty Baker look like the Einstein of baseball, and it would be nice to see him show a little emotion from time to time (he’s quickly becoming baseball’s Art Shell). The Mariners roster was built to fail because it hinged on a mythical thing called chemistry rather than a very real thing called talent. Let’s hope the Mariners front office learn from their mistakes in 2010 and puts a product on the field in 2011 that resembles a major league baseball team, because the Mariners are anything but right now.  

Remember when Seattle was 9-7 and looking like a legitimate contender. Yeah, me either…